Microsoft has unveiled an online hub that will give South African small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) access to a range of free products and services from Microsoft and other partners.

Launched by chief operating officer Kevin Turner, the hub is designed to aggregate all the best resources – both IT and non-IT resources – available to local SMEs. The baseline services offered are free and highly relevant for South African SMEs looking to bring their business online and improve their general competitiveness.

The launch offer will provide SMEs the opportunity to get their businesses online for free for the first year. This includes a free domain, a free website, as well as free email and collaboration tools. The initiative is a collaboration between Microsoft, mobile operator Vodacom, the National Small Business Chamber (NSBC) and the Small Business Development Agency (SEDA).

Turner says the opening of the Biz4Afrika hub was a strategic component of Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative announced earlier this year, when the company committed to bringing one million African SMEs online in three years’ time. He also noted that this launch was the latest step in the company’s heritage of investing and supporting entrepreneurs across the world.

The launch follows research released last month by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which showed that tech-savvy SMEs created twice as many new jobs and grew revenues 15 percentage points faster over the past three years than SMEs using little technology.

“Our objective is to help more SMEs transition to, and benefit from, modern IT so they can improve their overall competitiveness,” says Turner.

“Our commitments under the 4Afrika banner are focused on actively engaging in Africa’s economic development, and for SMEs, this means providing training on how to apply technology to their business and helping them understand how they can benefit from a broad range of available devices and services.”

Microsoft South Africa MD Mteto Nyati says the research underlined Microsoft’s belief that the best way of addressing unemployment in South Africa, and Africa, was by creating small businesses.

“If we can help small companies to succeed in the first three-five years of their lives, we will help grow job creation and economic development significantly,” says Nyati. “By doing this, we’re supporting government’s national priorities of creating jobs, growing skills and giving people meaningful work, while investing in local communities to help remove some of the systematic barriers that hold SMEs back.”

The nine categories where assistance is available are: finance and insurance, accounting, legal, marketing, administration, business services, business opportunities, technology and people. The hub will also connect SMEs with existing online commercial marketplaces through which they can sell their own products or services.

Nyati says that to further support the development of small enterprise and to help address employability, Microsoft will also place one IT intern in each of SEDA’s 43 centres across the country, where they will receive on-the-job-training on technology and other SME-related issues to become fully-fledged SME business and technology advisors in needy communities. A further four interns will be trained to handle online queries.

The BCG report revealed that high-performing SMEs stayed ahead of mainstream IT adoption, riding new waves of advancement to improve productivity, connecting with new customers and markets, particularly outside their own region or country, and competing with much larger players.

An interesting finding was that technology leaders in emerging markets grew jobs and revenue faster than in developed markets, and are even quicker than their developed market counterparts to embrace new tools. Also, women-owned firms are among the most technically advanced, innovative and successful firms interviewed.

But at the same time, says Turner, the research revealed a risk, because SMEs’ adoption of IT is decidedly uneven.

“Across the world, many SMEs, and their customers, don’t have access to modern broadband networks, and many lack the skills to get the most out of IT. Many SMEs are also still using large amounts of old and less efficient hardware and software,” he says.

“What we are seeing is that technology can help level the playing field for groups with historical disadvantages in business, and we would like to see more SMEs benefit from technology to help them become strong, local business leaders.”